Online Review: Book

Berenike '98. Report of the 1998 Excavations at Berenike and the Survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert, Including Excavations in Wadi Kalalat

Salima Ikram


Edited by Stephen Sidebotham and Willemina Wendrich (CNWS Publications Special Series 5). Pp. xii + 443, figs. 128, pls. 136, tables 34. Universiteit Leiden, Leiden 2001. Hfl. 90; $35. ISBN 90-5789-052-6 (paper).

This book is part of a series of publications dealing with the site of Berenike on the coast of Egypt’s Red Sea. The editors are to be commended for regularly publishing their results in a field when many an excavation report never appears or languishes for years.

Berenike ‘98 is divided into 19 chapters, with the introduction and conclusions written by both editors, and the intervening chapters made up of contributions by the editors as well as other specialists. The brief introduction, chapter 1, details the excavated areas, the goals of the archaeologists, the team members, and the funders. Chapter 2, the longest chapter in the book, written by Sidebotham, details the excavations. He organizes the section by trench, locating the structures (or fragments thereof) and finds. Photographs accompany the discussion, along with plans and section drawings, permitting one to interpret the evidence oneself, as well as taking the excavators’ remarks into consideration. Stratigraphy/phasing of areas is lucidly discussed, with problem areas highlighted.

Chapter 3, by R.S. Tomber and V. Begley, briefly deals with Indian pottery sherds. A surprisingly high number of potsherds from the Indian subcontinent wound up in Berenike due to the active trade routes between the two areas. Typologies and chronologies are emphasized here, with an accompanying catalogue. The majority of these date to the first century A.D. and are plain or cooking wares, most of an East-Indian origin. The drawings are good, although one might wish for clearer photographs.

Sidebotham continues with chapter 4 on the 90 coins found at the site. These are organized in tables by date and rulers, and described in a catalogue by trench. The section is accompanied by photographs of the coins, recto and verso, but no conclusion regarding their distribution or denomination. The chapter on textual finds, chapter 5, is written by R. Bagnall, C. Helms, and A. Verhoogt. Most of the textual evidence unearthed at Berenike takes the form of ostraka and deals with commodities passing through a customs checkpoint for export. Wine seems to have been the most frequently traded item. A few fragments of letters are also mentioned. The translations of some of the texts are given in brief; the commodities are interesting: pickled beets, small onions, lykion, and a medicinal plant. One of the texts was written on a tortoise shell (misspelled “Turtoise” in the caption of the dark image).

The sixth chapter on Semitic graffiti by P.C. Schmitz details the work on three sherds coming from a trash dump. The languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and possibly archaizing Palmyrene) attest to the cosmopolitan nature of the inhabitants, transitory or permanent, of Berenike. In chapter 7 A. Hense continues with the 12,000 metal finds (primarily copper and iron nails). These are listed by trench and then by object type (statuettes, tools, furniture, jewelry, locks). The chapter’s brief conclusion talks about luxury goods (including bone, ivory, glass) and their relation to the Serapis temple. The eighth chapter, by P. Nicholson, focuses on glass, especially a specific group of vessels; the discussion is well illustrated with drawings. Chapter 9, by P. Francis, Jr., concerns the 2,000 ornaments, mostly bangles and beads, found at the site between 1994 and 1998. Some of those made from natural materials (shell, horn, and stones), the author thinks, were probably produced at Berenike. Other ornaments came from farther afield, objects made of red coral, faience, and glass. The discussion on the different types of beads, their origins and manufacturing technology, is particularly interesting and extremely useful for anyone dealing with Roman sites in Egypt, where beads form such a significant part of the small finds.

W. Wendrich deals with basketry and matting in chapter 10. She describes the archaeological contexts for the objects and then discusses the materials (palm leaf, grass, and dôm—here spelled doam). One particularly interesting specimen was made of willow and could have been imported into Egypt, as well as another, as yet unidentified and therefore probably foreign, raw material. The baskets, mats, and sandals are discussed and illustrated with clear photographs and excellent drawings. She also discusses the technologies for producing these objects, providing a superb source of information on the many types of basketry found in Egypt during this period. Chapter 11 by J. and F. Wild considers the textile finds at the site. It deals with not only the technology employed in their production but also their role in Berenike’s social and economic existence. Indian imports are identified, together with more local productions. Wool (goat and sheep), flax, and cotton were all found at Berenike, very little of which was dyed. Some specimens were decorated with vegetal or geometric patterns.

Jar stoppers and seals are the subject of J. Bos’ chapter 12. The distribution of these 148 objects is catalogued, illustrated, and discussed in terms of their manufacturing techniques and typology. Chapter 13 by R. Cappers deals with archaeobotanical remains, detailing 68 cultivated plant taxa. These are sensibly organized according to habitation period as well as taxa, permitting one to see rises and falls in what might be plant popularity. He concludes with an interesting section on tannin and its use in leather tanning, a topic that has been woefully ignored for Egyptian history. C. Vermeeren’s contribution in chapter 14 concerns wood and charcoal, identifying several species of wood, as well as situating their origins from within the tree trunk, all laid out conveniently in a table. Sandalwood, imported from India, as well as teak are identified, again underlining the close trading links with the Indian subcontinent. The wooden objects include a reed stylus, cups, furniture, building materials, and basketlike containers.

Architectural conservation is covered in chapter 15 by T. Roby and provides the first standard condition assessment of the site, including treatment priorities, methods, and stabilization. In chapter 16, Sidebotham covers the survey of the hinterland, and details the location and plotting of roads and settlements in the environs of Berenike. A foldout map accompanies this section, along with photographs and sketch plans. This is an extremely useful section on the little-known installations and routes in the interior of the eastern desert near Berenike. Chapter 17, also by Sidebotham, with H. Barnard, deals with the excavations in the hydreuma at the Early Roman site of Wadi Kalat, 8.5 km southwest of Berenike. The inscriptions from that site are considered by R. Bagnall in chapter 18. These confirm the ceramic and numismatic Early Roman dates of the site. The text concludes with an interpretative summary by the book’s editors and their ideas of town development and international relations. The book ends with a bibliography and index.

This is an extremely useful book for anyone working on the Roman (and Ptolemaic) periods in Egypt. Sidebotham’s organization and presentation of the fieldwork are exemplary, and the work of the specialists is well presented, providing interesting insights into Egypt at a time of great transition and increased international links. The editors are to be congratulated for turning out such an informative and usable volume.

Salima Ikram
Department of Egyptology-Sape 218
American University in Cairo
113 Sharia Kasr el Aini

Book Review of Berenike ‘98. Report of the 1998 Excavations at Berenike and the Survey of the Egyptian Eastern Desert, Including Excavations in Wadi Kalalat, edited by Stephen Sidebotham and Willemina Wendrich

Reviewed by Salima Ikram

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 110, Number 2 (April 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Ikram

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